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Thousands of Students Cross the US-Mexico Border Every Day to Go to College

Many transborder students struggle with uncertainty over residency and financial aid in an anti-immigrant climate.

Many transborder students struggle with uncertainty over residency and financial aid in an anti-immigrant climate.

San Ysidro, California — The weight of her backpack is what comes to mind when Andrea Morín thinks about crossing the U.S.-Mexico border between Tijuana and San Diego every weekday to attend San Diego State University.

“We have to struggle with the most basic things sometimes,” the 22-year-old theater major said. “My backpack is super heavy ‘cause I have to be here the entire day. So I have to be carrying snacks, food, extra clothes.”

Vannessa Falcón, a Ph.D. candidate in education in a joint program between San Diego State and Claremont Graduate University, was 12 when she started crossing the San Ysidro port of entry, one of the world’s busiest, to go to middle school. For her, it’s become part of her identity — and the subject of her dissertation.

“The reasons why I live a transborder life,” said Falcón, are “deeply rooted in who I am.”

Morín and Falcón are two among thousands of students at colleges and universities in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas who cross the southern border for their educations.

Many stay in Mexico because it’s cheaper to live there, while others moved near the border to continue their educations in the United States after their parents were deported. Some started crossing in elementary school.

With one foot in each country, these students have the linguistic and cultural capacity to navigate both the U.S. and its largest trading partner. U.S. trade with Mexico exceeds $1.7 billion daily, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They refer to themselves as “transborder,” a term that originally appeared in academic literature. It wasn’t until she read the term in a book that UCLA doctoral student Estefania Castañeda Pérez found a descriptor she felt captured her identity. “Even as I crossed the border, there was something about my experience that the term Mexican American didn’t encapsulate,” she said.

“Transborder students have the capacity to be a bridge for both nations,” added Falcón.

They do that against the background of an anti-immigration climate driven by questions over whether immigrants take opportunities away from American-born citizens. That has added obstacles both real and feared, most notably long delays at border crossings, and made many of these largely unnoticed students keep an even lower profile.

Falcón has now founded the Transfronterizx Alliance Student Organization, or TASO, to support students who cross the southern border for education. Morín is co-president.

Started as a Facebook page to create a virtual community among these students, the group now shares information about such essential things as wait times and border closures. It has grown to become an official student organization at San Diego State, or SDSU, with new chapters being established at UCLA and San Diego City College.

The exact number of transborder — or transfronterizo in Spanish — students at SDSU is unknown, but TASO is trying to increase their visibility on campus.

With funding from the university, Falcón has designed an ally training for staff, faculty and other students there and at several neighboring institutions, to educate them about the transborder population. The program has been made part of the institution’s diversity initiatives.

“We know that there are disconnects in terms of climate and support,” said J. Luke Wood, associate vice president for faculty diversity and inclusion. “We also have faculty members who may not understand … the additional stresses and challenges of going across the border and being policed at the border every day.”

Training them and others about this, “given where we’re situated, it’s got to be a core focus of the work that we’re doing or else we’re missing the mark,” Wood said.

At the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP, about 80 percent of students come from the surrounding region in a tightly integrated binational community, according to the dean of students, Catie McCorry Andalis.

According to university officials, UTEP has 650 students out of a total of 24,000 who have permanent addresses in Juarez, but the number of border commuters is likely far higher. Students say it’s common practice to use the address of a friend of family member living in the United States to qualify for resident tuition.

“Our entire economy, our way of life, our culture is very contingent on this very specific border relationship,” McCorry Andalis said. “As a public institution, we should be serving our region, and that’s not just the U.S. side of the border.”

Some transborder students cross every day, while others live in the U.S. Mondays through Fridays and return to Mexico on the weekends to visit their families. Some high school seniors who live on the Mexican border with California said they have already started crossing because they hope graduating from a California high school will help them establish residency in time to start college in the fall.

One 17-year-old high school senior, who asked that his name not be used, crosses from his home in Tijuana to the Otay Mesa port of entry, where he joins thousands of others who commute to San Diego for work or school. He then takes two buses to get to his high school in the South Bay.

The boy carries around a dogeared utility bill showing the address he’s used at school. Although he’s a U.S. citizen, he’s not a California resident. He didn’t tell his family friends he had used their address, and they sent back some mail from the school. Now he has to show the bill to prove where he lives. Another time, his wallet was stolen and he couldn’t go to school because he couldn’t cross the border without his passport card.

There aren’t any good estimates of how many students cross the border every day, partly because of the gray area they occupy. Most are U.S. passport holders, but not necessarily U.S. residents. Around 80 percent of students who cross are U.S. citizens, estimated Castañeda Pérez, who surveyed 869 students crossing the border in San Ysidro and El Paso in 2017 and 2018 as part of her research for her doctoral dissertation. Others are international students on F-1 or F-3 visas, which are non-immigrant visas for people who want to study in the United States, or legal permanent residents.

Many transborder students struggle because they don’t easily fit into other categories. “We’re a different kind of student because we’re not DACA students,” Morín said, referring to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. “We’re not residents who live here. We’re not international students either. We feel invisible.”

Added Castañeda Pérez: “I felt like I could not express who I was for many years because of the fear of facing the stigma of crossing the border.”

She said education should be seen as a fundamental human right for everyone, “regardless of their status, regardless of where they live.”

Some students fear being outed as transborder because of uncertainty over residency and financial aid. Ilse Quijano, who lives with her aunt in San Diego, began filling out her financial-aid application while she was commuting from Tijuana during her freshman year at San Diego City College. “I was scared to even give them any of my information because my parents don’t pay taxes here [in the United States],” said Quijano, who has since transferred to SDSU.

San Diego State’s Dean of Students Randy Timm said that his office does not determine residency status. “It’s very possible that you have California residency, you’ve established it, and you’re using that as your location where federal mail is going, but then living across the border as well,” he said.

McCorry Andalis said “there’s lots of different criteria you can use to establish residency” and pointed to the official UTEP policy.

Many, like Castañeda Pérez, are the first in their families to attend college. She remembers doing her homework in the car on the way to middle school in the United States every day. “This was when I really started to resent crossing the border. But my mom told me that crossing for me was going to be the only way we could achieve social mobility,” she said.

While the border crossing has always entailed early mornings and long wait times, recent slowdowns have made the commute even more fraught. Sara González-Quintero, a recent SDSU graduate who started crossing in elementary school, has always had some anxiety about crossing, but she said she wasn’t afraid until 2016.

“When the barbed wire started and I actually saw the border as a militarized zone, that was the first time where I was extremely scared,” González-Quintero said.

Cassandra Adame said that when she first started crossing the border to attend UTEP, where she is now a senior, it was hard to deal with the constant questioning she faced every morning “even though I’m American.”

Students at both UTEP and San Diego State report extended wait times in the last few months as border patrol officers have been diverted from ports of entry.

María Galindo, a freshman mechanical engineering major at UTEP, has been crossing since high school. When President Donald Trump threatened to shut down the entire southern border at the end of March, she didn’t want to skip class, but she had nowhere to stay in El Paso. “Everyone that I know that lives in Juarez and goes to school in El Paso, we were all really, really scared,” she said.

Many of Adame’s U.S. resident classmates aren’t even aware of the ways in which border closures might impact their transborder peers. “They don’t even notice this stuff,” she said.

It’s not only classmates who don’t understand the broader implications of border closures for students who live in Mexico. Carlos Alonso, a senior at UTEP, said he has missed or was late to class several times after waiting in the border line for hours. He emailed his professors to explain, and only one responded. As a result, his grades have suffered. “My professors do not really show any interest in anything that is going on concerning border lines,” he said.

Some institutions with large transborder populations have made efforts to reach out to border commuters. UTEP has, for instance, worked with the local transportation authority to ensure that there are buses from the ports of entry to the university. In April, it launched a new website that brings together resources available to transborder students in response to the possibility of a border shutdown. It issued a statement asking faculty to work with students who were unable to attend class and offered temporary housing, virtual counseling and immigration advising.

At Arizona Western College in Yuma, the administration encourages faculty members to ask students questions and avoid making assumptions when they are late or miss class. “What we try to do as an administration, as far as working with our faculty, is just letting them know about the realities of teaching in a border city,” said Susanna M. Zambrano, associate dean for South Yuma County Services. “It’s quite the opposite of what they might be assuming, in that the class is so important to students that they’re willing to wait four hours in line.”

Wood has a similar message for his faculty and staff: “You should not assume that a [transborder] student doesn’t care, isn’t prepared, isn’t committed,” he said. Instead, Wood said, faculty should “assume that if they’re in your classroom, they are the most resilient, most determined, most caring and committed students that you have. Period.”

Many wary transborder students still don’t trust their institutions. In December, San Diego State issued a statement acknowledging and offering support to the transborder population, including temporary housing in case of further border closures. According to Timm, no students came forward to accept it.

Quijano said she texted a classmate who could have benefitted, but her friend was afraid to ask for housing because she uses someone else’s address for her financial aid.

While Morín appreciated the gesture, she noted that it was in response to a specific event. She said being a transborder student is a daily reality, not an emergency situation.

“It’s every day, not just one day.… I mean, I always need a place here to crash,” she said. “We’re just trying to make our lives better by improving our education. It’s the only thing we want.”

This story about transborder students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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